Looking pedestrian against Seattle’s other-worldly defense is nothing to be ashamed of -- just ask Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
But after Eddie Lacy gained just 34 yards on 12 carries in his season debut against the Seahawks last week before exiting in the fourth quarter with a concussion, it’s understandable if those who own him in fantasy leagues (and likely drafted him in the first round) started to panic a little bit.
After all, wasting a first-round pick on an underperforming back is one of the quickest ways to be eliminated from playoff contention, as Trent Richardson owners from last season can attest.
In SI’s fantasy primer, Lacy was ranked as the No. 1 second-year player and No. 5 running back overall -- above the likes of Marshawn Lynch (No. 6) and Arian Foster (No. 10), two of the NFL’s most reliable workhorses over the past few years. This was no anomaly, as just about every publication seemed to place Lacy above those two.
Those rankings are presumably based on the belief that Lacy seems primed to boost his numbers in his sophomore season, while Lynch could take a backseat to Russell Wilson in Seattle’s offense and Foster is coming off an injury-shortened campaign. But is Lacy really going to overtake two of the league’s most consistent backs over the past few years in terms of fantasy value?
As the above graph shows, between those three backs, Lacy provided four of the five worst single-game outputs in terms of yards last season -- excluding the game Foster left early with his hamstring injury. Lacy only topped 100 yards four times, and was held to less than 3.3 yards per rush in seven of his 15 games.
Foster might have missed half the season, but when he did play, he actually gained more yards per carry (4.5) than he did in his previous two campaigns, and also poses more of a threat in the passing game than Lacy.
And when Lacy and Lynch faced off at CenturyLink Field in Seattle last week, it was Lynch (110 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries) who looked like the spry youngster ready to keep on chugging along this season.
While Lacy certainly exceeded expectations last year, he wasn’t exactly an elite game-changer, either. Defenses started to key on him after Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone, and the Packers only sneaked into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth when Rodgers returned to heroically guide them past Chicago in Week 17 to clinch the NFC North division title despite finishing 8-7-1.
Green Bay running backs coach Sam Gash says Lacy will be an every-down back this year, as opposed to last season, when Lacy was often removed on third down due to pass protection issues. Even if that portion of his game has improved, he still might not be the best tailback for the Packers to give the ball to in those situations -- which is what fantasy owners should care about.
When James Starks spelled Lacy last season, he actually performed better both on the ground and in Green Bay’s prolific passing attack. Even third-stringer Johnathan Franklin produced more yards per carry and yards per reception than Lacy when he was forced into action in a matchup against Cincinnati.
Lacy’s backup outperformed him once again last Thursday, as Starks outgained Lacy by three yards on five fewer carries.
But it’s likely that Starks’ shot at being Green Bay’s featured running back has come and gone. Unless Lacy actually does suffer a complete collapse this season similar to the disastrous campaign that his ex-Alabama teammate Richardson endured in 2013, he’ll be getting the bulk of the carries in the Packers backfield.
Assuming Lacy won’t miss any games with his concussion, he’ll have a relatively soft schedule to ease his way back into action and establish himself as a top-five fantasy option -- the Packers don’t face a team that finished with a winning record in 2013 until they welcome the Panthers to Lambeau Field on Oct. 19 (although their Week 2 opponent, the Jets, posted the league’s best run defense last year at 3.4 YPC allowed).
If Lacy hasn’t gotten it going by then, though, it might be tough for him to recover -- starting with Carolina, Green Bay will face four double-digit win teams from last season in a span of six games.
Even Lacy expected this season to be tougher for him, as teams are no longer just focused on stopping Rodgers and Green Bay’s seemingly endless line of receivers.
The Seattle matchup was an especially tough one for Lacy, as the Seahawks could depend on their excellent secondary to limit Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb without leaving the center of the field open for Lacy to blast through. That let the Seahawks clog the middle with their front seven, forcing Lacy outside -- where the 5-foot-11, 230 pound back will probably never make his hay.
If Green Bay’s injury-beset offensive line can open up holes for Lacy in the trenches, there’s a great chance he’ll hit the 1,000-yard mark once again. If not, Green Bay might have to go back to asking Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball 40+ times per game -- and while that might ultimately be the best option for the Packers in that scenario, it’ll do nothing to soothe the frustrations of Lacy’s owners.